Attachment, emotion and plural parts work

Attachment, emotion and plural parts work

In this follow up to my recent attachment theory piece, two of my containing parts discuss how we can embrace all of the attachment styles within us – and the emotions that they hold – and bring them into our relationships with others.

If you haven’t read one of my plural blog-posts before and aren’t sure who these people are, feel free to check out my Plural Selves zine, and my previous post about plurality. But hopefully you don’t need to get that part in order to find the content here useful.

James: Hey again Ara.

Ara: Hey James. So good to talk with you again so soon.

James: I thought about writing this as a regular post, but I realised I could really do with somebody to bounce off: to ask me questions to help me clarify my thoughts.

Ara: I’d love to do that. I’m aware that in our last post together you asked me a lot of questions. It feels good to balance that dynamic by doing it the other way around.

James: Mm like you are more of the expert around feelings and embodiment, but perhaps I have the expertise on this more intellectual piece: weaving the various theories together.

Ara: I like that.

James: I also feel like I need you as a kind of anchor. I feel so excited about the puzzle pieces that seem to be slotting together here. I want to zoom off in a hundred different directions at once.

Ara: How can I help to ground you?

James: Remind me to breathe, to slow down, I don’t have to do it all at once. You could ask me questions to lead me through one step at a time. Are you up for that?

Ara: Absolutely. Want to breathe before we start?

James: Sure *laughs* *breathes*


Ara: Okay. Can you start by giving us an overview of the terrain you want to cover in this piece? If the terms we use here are unfamiliar to people, we’ll define them in the next section.

James: Absolutely. It’s something I’ve been building to ever since I did that Bowlby Centre event last month which I wrote up here, about attachment theory. My sense is that perhaps everyone contains all of the different attachment styles – or at least the capacity for them – within themselves. Rather than aiming at some kind of static secure attachment, perhaps there’s more value in getting to know all our different attachment potentials very well. Maybe that even is the way that we get to ‘earned secure attachment’.

Ara: A kind of paradox? We’ve tried to get to ‘secure attachment’ by getting away from ‘insecure’ attachment styles, but perhaps the way to get there is through them, not away from them?

James: Precisely. And there’s this sense that it also maps onto emotions and the ‘window of tolerance’. The only way to expand the window of tolerance and get to a place where you can be with all emotional states is through experiencing (tough) emotions, not by trying to avoid them or get away from them.

Ara: So that’s attachment and emotion, what about plural parts work?

James: We’ve reached these conclusions by getting to know all of the parts of us deeply. I’m suggesting that we can do this work by befriending the three parts of us who map on to the three ‘insecure’ attachment styles, and the emotions that they hold. That’s the way to both earned secure attachment and an expanded window of tolerance.

Ara: Wonderful. So you can explain to us how we now understand our parts having operated together in the ‘old’ system, that we had our whole life. And you can describe how we’re working with them now to reconfigure the system towards more secure attachments in our inner and outer relationships, and towards an expanded window of tolerance. How am I doing?

James: This is really helpful, thankyou Ara. 

Ara: Another breath before we continue?

James: Mm. *breathes*

The faux window of tolerance, faux secure attachment, and faux parts

Ara: So one thing that we read which helped you click together on all of this was the concept of the faux window of tolerance in Kathy L. Kain and Stephen J. Terrell’s book ‘Nurturing Resilience’. Do you want to explain that, and how it relates to attachment?

James: That’s a great place to start, yes. So Kathy and Stephen explain that many, if not most, people develop a ‘faux window of tolerance’ when they’re growing up, in order to handle intense emotions. The window of tolerance is Daniel Siegal’s term for the space in which we can be present with – and regulate – our emotions, rather than being overwhelmed by them. 

Growing up if our caregivers and others can meet us in various emotional states and help us to know that they are okay, understandable, and manageable, then we will develop that window of tolerance. We’ll learn in those early relationships that those feelings are okay, and we’ll learn from experience with others what we can do to soothe ourselves when feelings are really intense. We’ll end up with a nice wide space in which we can welcome a variety of different feelings at different intensities.

Ara: So that’s how it relates to secure attachment? The window of tolerance is developed within secure relationships?

James: Right, a secure attachment refers to that kind of nurturing relationship where we have a ‘secure base’ or ‘safe haven’ to return to when emotions are unfamiliar or overwhelming. As a child, if we learn that we can return there and be welcomed, understood, soothed, have our needs met, then we’ll be more and more able to extend out from that base to explore our world with openness, curiosity, and creativity. We‘ll have more of a sense that we can tolerate any tough experiences and regulate our own emotions, as well as a strong sense of trust in that base we can return to if it gets too hard.

Later in life that would translate into building strong, secure relationships with other people in our lives – friends, partners, mentors, communities, etc. – so that we still have a place to return where people can help us coregulate around the tough feelings, where we can express our needs and have them met, and so on.

Ara: So what’s the ‘faux window of tolerance’.

James: Most of us carry some degree of developmental trauma: a sense of key relationships not being very secure and of not all emotions – or all intensities of emotion – being tolerated and regulated by those around us. Kathy and Stephen suggest that what therapists call ‘defences’ are what we develop in order to have a ‘faux window of tolerance’: the impression that we are tolerating our emotional states, but really we’re defending against them.

Ara: That resonated for us.

James: So much. This last year or two we’ve often wondered how we’ve done so seemingly okay in life despite clearly carrying so much developmental trauma, such that we’ve been plunged into intense trauma periods and overwhelming emotion several times over the years. The idea of a ‘faux window of tolerance’ makes so much sense. It might have looked like we were handling difficult experiences and the emotions they brought up pretty well, but really it was more that we were adept at various defences, or survival strategies, to avoid or sidestep them.

Ara: I think that fits well with what we discussed last time about emotions James. The sense that we thought we were pretty good at ‘staying with feelings’ but have lately realised that there were several vital emotions that we were barely feeling at all.

James: Exactly. So what we were generally doing was repressing feelings, or reacting out of survival strategies in ways which made the difficult experience and/or feelings go away. Part of why the last year or two have been so intense is that we’ve finally been feeling many of the feelings – and the experiences they resulted from – which we hadn’t allowed ourselves to feel along the way.

Ara: And you think it may be useful to conceptualise this as a ‘faux secure attachment’ as well as a ‘faux window of tolerance’?

James: I do. We – and I suspect many, many people – were able to do a pretty good impression of functioning in the world, and relating with ourselves and others, for much of the time because we’d developed pretty remarkable defences and survival strategies. However, the ‘faux-ness’ became apparent any time something retraumatising happened – beyond the capacity of the defences and survival strategies to cope with – which put us into periods of intense PTSD where the feelings were terrifying and overwhelming and we couldn’t function. 

The ‘faux-ness’ was also revealed in most of our close relationships because eventually it became apparent that we – and the other person – weren’t really securely attached – in ourselves or with each other – and the relationship ended. Maybe they became more insecure and needy over time and we had to get away, or vice versa, or the level of conflict became unbearable to us. Often it was revealed how much we’d been shaping ourselves to fit that person, and how much we’d lost ourselves in the process, and we finally began to struggle with that.

Ara: I notice that I feel some resistance to the word ‘faux’ here.

James: Me too. It does feel rather harsh and judgemental, and there’s also a sense in it of having been a ‘false self’ covering up a ‘real self’ which is something that I would question.

Ara: Being seven selves all of whom are a work in progress definitely raises questions around any sense of a real ‘authentic’ self!

James: It does indeed.

Faux selves?

Ara: Do you want to say how all this relates to plurality?

James: Well, if we were to use those terms, we would say that we developed a ‘faux part’ – Max – who was to the fore for most of our life. She was the one who formed that ‘faux window of tolerance’ and who formed those ‘faux secure attachments’. She would likely have looked pretty happy and successful from the outside, except for the few times – when traumatic things happened and/or relationships ended – when it became very hard for her to maintain that facade.

Ara: We find it so interesting that we chose the name ‘Max’ for her, given that it sounds a lot like ‘mask’, which is kind of what she was.

James: And her survival strategies were to dissociate a lot, not that she realised that at the time. Throwing herself into work, and into helping others, both enabled her to keep our own intense feelings, and traumatised parts, very disowned and buried. Busy-ness and distraction was her main ‘faux window of tolerance’. Focusing on becoming something for others – rather than bringing herself openly and vulnerably to relationships – was her main ‘faux secure attachment’.

Ara: And this is why we don’t love ‘faux’ for her, although it is accurate in a way, because these survivor parts – in all of us – are something we should be deeply grateful for, and celebrate, not dismiss as ‘false’ or flawed.

James: Agreed. We simply wouldn’t be here now were it not for Max. She protected the other parts of us through some truly horrific early – and later – experiences. And she kept searching for answers to all of the tough stuff that we encountered with our mental health, and in our relationships, and that she saw others around us struggling with too. Ironically if she hadn’t had the survival strategies of workaholism, and trying to help others, we would not now have this huge foundation of knowledge and writing to build upon. 

Ara: We can feel deep gratitude to Max, and huge grief for what she had to go through. One image of her is of the ‘parentified child’: an inner child or teenager who has to act like an inner parent in order to survive and look after the other parts of the inner system who are even more vulnerable. It’s rather like the way a big sibling might have to look after the other kids in a family where parents are struggling, or unable to handle tough experiences and emotions.

James: How it feels at the moment is that we have finally freed Max of that burden and she is off walking in the hills alone somewhere.

Ara: Mm I always think of her when I read the Mary Oliver poem, The Journey. By finding/developing our own inner parents – you and me James – and by working with our three traumatised child parts directly, we have liberated Max.

James: Which brings us on to those parts and how they function in terms of attachment.

Insecurely attached parts under the faux secure attachment

Ara: Go for it James.

James: Right, so this is the idea that all of us have all of the attachment styles present within us. Parts work gives us a nice easy way of working with this. Our experience is that we literally have members of our plural system who map on to each of the forms of insecure attachment.

Ara: I sense a table coming on!

James: How did you guess?

Part (4F)Attachment styleMain (disowned) emotionTransactional analysis positionDefence against feeling those emotions
Tony (fasten / attach)Anxious – preoccupiedYearning / needinessI’m not okay, you’re okayVeneer of confidence, eroticising things, deflecting with humour
Morgan aka Beastie (fight)Dismissive – avoidantAnger / rageI’m okay, you’re not okayInner critic – internalising others’ criticisms of us
Jonathan (fawn / freeze)Fearful – avoidantTerror / shameI’m not okay, you’re not okayPeople pleasing hypervigilance – pretending to be fine and keeping others happy
Max (flight)Faux secure covering over the othersTrapped fearI’m pretending that I’m okay and you’re okayBusy-ness, distraction, projecting our insecure parts onto others and helping them

Ara: A lot to unpack there James. How about getting a drink before we start?

James: Hot chocolate?

Ara: You read my mind.

James: I was going to say that’s not so hard when it’s the same mind, but given how poorly parts of us knew each other in the past perhaps I can’t say that.

Ara: We’re getting to know each other better and better now thankfully. Also I feel like we both do and don’t share the same bodymind, given how differently each of us think, feel, and inhabit our body, but perhaps that’s one for another blog post!

James: Okay then. So to explain the table. We’ve introduced these four ‘traumatised parts’ before in various places, although our understanding of them – and how they fit together – has definitely clarified over the past year. Mapping onto attachment theory we’d now say that Tony was our anxious-preoccupied part: needy, clingy and desperate for connection. Morgan – who we used to call Beastie – is dismissive avoidant: struggling to trust others and pushing them away. And Jonathan is fearful avoidant: terrified of that other people will hurt or shame him.

Ara: And the ‘okay’ bit of the table?

James: Transactional analysis is another therapeutic approach which seems to map fairly well onto attachment theory. The anxious-preoccupied part – Tony – believes that other people are okay, but he’s not, so he craves others’ love, approval, and attention, and he fears their disapproval, dismissal, and disgust. The dismissive avoidant part believes that she is okay but other people are not, so she tends to blame others and push them away. And the fearful avoidant part believes that he isn’t okay and neither are other people, hence Jonathan’s fear/shame trauma response: other people are dangerous and he is wrong and unacceptable.

Ara: But most of our life these three parts have been disowned?

James: Precisely, which does not mean they haven’t had an impact. Now we understand it that Max was constantly responding to others’ demands inside and out. On the inside she was constantly getting, often rather desperate, messages from Tony, Morgan and Jonathan, about what they needed. She tried her best to balance and meet those needs. On the outside she was very tuned into what other people wanted of her and tried to balance and meet those demands. No wonder she’s off in the hills these days taking a well-earned break!

Ara: So dismantling Max’s defences and setting her free, as we did last year, left us with a much clearer sense of the other three traumatised parts. They have been gradually revealing themselves more and more as they’ve come to trust us. They’re gradually feeling more securely attached to us, and to other people, and they’re gradually sensing that their feelings have a more expanded window of tolerance to be held in.

James: Nicely put. What just clicked with me this morning is that not only did Max have her set of defences – or survival strategies – that covered over the others, but each of the ‘insecure’ parts also have a set of defences that we need to get underneath in order for them to show themselves fully and to feel all their feelings.

Ara: This is so exciting, and it makes so much sense. Do you want to take me through it?

James: Please. The thing that struck me was about Tony initially. He didn’t seem to make sense. On the one hand we experience him as this cocky, hot, humorous part of us: very extrovert and craving connection with others. On the other hand we know that he holds the Deep Yearning of the Soul (™). When he does feel his feelings they are often feelings of unquenchable thirst, desperate need, and longing. So how can this seemingly confident part also be the part who feels that he isn’t okay and will be abandoned by others?

But with this sense of defences it all makes sense. If Tony is driven by not wanting to feel the traumatic level of neediness and loneliness that he holds then it makes all kinds of sense that he would fling himself into connections by coming over as charming, sexy, funny and so on.

Ara: Mm yes. As he and I recently discussed, tragically that often fetches him up with just the kind of rejection and loss of belonging that he deeply fears. But it does make all kinds of sense as a defence, just like Max dissociating from recognising just how trapped she’s been in work and relationships. What about Morgan?

James: Again initially confusing. The part of us who holds anger, even hatred, towards others has manifested our whole life as the inner critic, turning that anger and hatred inwards. But if you look at it from the defence perspective that, like Tony, Morgan was disowned all our life, then it makes sense.

Ara: So growing up we learnt that we must never be needy and desperate as Tony can be, or rageful and resentful at others, as Morgan can be. So both of them defended by becoming the opposite – when they were allowed out at all. 

James: Tony faked confidence and made light of his pain, Morgan turned anger in against us rather than ever allowing herself to feel it towards others.

Ara: And our chalkboard boy Jonathan did something similar.

James: I think so. Deep down he holds that incredibly vulnerable fear and shame, and it wasn’t acceptable to admit to those things. So he became the people pleaser who pretended to be fine – in order to keep others happy – and who hypervigilantly figured out what others wanted from him and tried to give it to them.

Ara: Expanding out from our particular experience, do you think there’s something for other people in all this?

James: I suspect so. It probably manifests very differently for different people, but it would be worth everyone exploring what their ‘faux secure’ part looks like, and whether they also have all three ‘insecure’ parts in them somewhere. How do those three influence the whole system? How do they impact how they relate with other people? How repressed or available are they?  What are their defensive behaviours and what are those covering up?

Ara: You’ve done a great job at overviewing the theory, and how it applies to us, here James. I’m wondering if we might dig into practice a little more now?

James: I’d love to. What did you have in mind?

Ara: I’d like to reflect more on how we’re working with this internally and externally. How are we building that ‘earned secure attachment’ with each of the ‘insecure’ parts, and how are we bringing awareness of the three different ‘insecure’ styles into our current relationships? 

We’ve had this radical sense lately that strong relationships are not ones in which we’re just securely attached, but rather the ones in which we can honestly and kindly recognise all the different attachments in play.

James: Yes! 

Ara: A little stretch first?

James: Also yes.

Working with insecure parts internally

Ara: We covered some of this territory in our last post James, about how we’re working to help each part to expand their window of tolerance and feel their feelings safely enough, which is also how we’re building our earned secure attachment with each of them.

James: You’re doing the big space ‘drop the storyline and feel the feeling’ work with them, and I’m trying to hold them close, love them and hear them when they’re struggling. We’re also checking in with the ‘insecure three’ at least twice a day to see where they’re at with everything. Because they’re so used to hiding themselves and their feeling, it’s important to keep encouraging them to deliberately tune in and share where they’re at.

Ara: So what else do we need to say here?

James: I guess the new piece is recognising those defences that each of those three holds. Perhaps it feels obvious to go to Tony when we feel yearning, Morgan when we feel anger, and Jonathan when we feel fear, to help them really feel it and be held and heard in it. But there’s now this extra piece of recognising that we need to go to them at least as much if Tony is pinning that yearning onto somebody else or falling into over-excited connection or fantasy, if Morgan is going into inner critic anger-inward type noise, or if Jonathan is chalkboarding.

Ara: Those experiences often feel more dissociated – now that we understand what that means. It often doesn’t feel so apparent that there is a feeling present. There may not be clarity around which part of us is doing their thing, or what has triggered them. There’s just a general sense of unease, confusion, or of being a bit scattered or vague.

James: That’s right. I think we got it first with Jonathan because we clearly identified him with hypervigilance and chalkboarding. Last year whenever we found our brain going over and over things in that familiar way, I would go to Jonathan and encourage him to go closer to the ‘traumado’ of fear/shame feelings instead of desperately trying to solve impossible equations. It had to be very slow and gradual, but eventually we could sit together in the eye of the storm and let it swirl around us, finding a way to settle him there instead of trying to figure everything out which usually made it worse and worse.

Ara: And lately we’ve taken any – even fleeting – ‘noisy’ anger in/out thoughts as an opportunity to go to Morgan and encourage her to sit with her feelings of anger. Tony can be very dissociated, but again we’ve been noticing the kind of thing that’s likely to make him feel rejected or lonely when it happens, and encouraging him to drop down into the yearning feeling, with one of us holding him through it.

James: From a trauma-informed perspective it has to be gradual doesn’t it? Feeling the feelings in the times when it feels possible to do so, gradually expanding the window of tolerance so more and more of it is possible to feel. Slowly these parts can drop the defences more and more, creating a ‘secure base’ of more gentle time with us every day to return to. And very gradually they can share those feelings with trusted others too.

Ara: More on that in a moment. Anything else to say on the inner work?

James: One thing is how each part’s go-to fantasies helped us to understand their resistance, as well as the feelings they covered up. There’s a lot more to write about how we us our erotic imagination for such exploration. We sketched out some of it in this zine with Justin. 

Lately we noticed that Jonathan, Tony, and Morgan kept going towards a fantasy where they were welcomed into a home with me. But the way that fantasy played out was very different for each of them. With Jonathan it was about being in a terrifying situation, rescued by me, and taken somewhere safe where he had a lot of time to recover before having to do anything else. With Tony it was about coming to live with me but being convinced that he would mess up and be sent away. He kept acting out until he could admit those feelings and believe my reassurance. With Morgan she came to me very reluctantly. She kept wanting to fight me and walk away, struggling to trust me to really be up for being with her rage.

Ara: So fascinating how those fantasies – and many of the dreams we’ve had too – echo the processes we’re going through in our outer life. Anything else?

James: I guess that the process feels reciprocal. The more the ‘insecure’ parts learn to trust us, the more of the previously disowned ‘unacceptable’ feelings they can bring. And the more they bring those feelings, the more trust is built. Welcoming them in those feelings seems to help all of them to become more real, more fully fleshed out. That is partly why Morgan wanted a ‘real name’ rather than being called ‘Beastie’ which felt like a caricature. 

But on the way towards that more ‘secure’ attachment with us they often balk at it. They try to resist those feelings, like they can’t really believe it’s really okay to say that they hate somebody – or us (Morgan), or to beg not to be left (Tony).

Ara: Mm which is perhaps why they have to practise in fantasy before they’re able to do that in reality. We’ve described it as encouraging them to bring the whole palette of feelings, not just the not palatable elements of themselves.

James: We like a bit of word play don’t we? 

We also find it useful to notice which old experiences keep returning to our mind, and which current ones. With old experiences we can ask where each part of us is at with those. Often it seems that one of them needs to return to that memory and to complete it somehow – by really feeling it, or by saying how they wish they’d been able to respond, for example, if they’d been more available back then. You and I can hold and hear them through that process, instead of our old pattern of despairing that we kept churning round and round old memories. 

With current experiences it’s similarly important for all of them – or the one who is particularly struggling – to be heard and heeded. For example recently we deeply listened to Morgan’s angry response to how someone treated us and found a response that sat well with her. After that she felt a lot more welcome and ‘at home’ in us.

Ara: It’s not about directly reacting to any ‘insecure’ impulse they might have, as Max might once have done. Rather it’s about engaging in conversation, taking them very seriously, and thinking together how we might respond – giving ourselves a lot of time around it.

James: Right, so instead of Tony leaping into a connection with someone the minute he feels drawn to them, we can notice that feeling and consider how we might move cautiously towards that connection, or whether it’s really speaking to a general desire for more contact, or to be looked after internally. Instead of Morgan deciding never to engage with somebody again we can investigate what she’s responding to negatively in them, and what might be a safe-enough, boundaried way of relating with that person, given what they bring up in her.

Ara: I’m thinking that all these ways of being with them are about demonstrating how loved and respected they are.

James: Which is very easy to do. It’s when parts or feelings are hidden that they feel murky or threatening or hard to love. Brought to the surface and into the light they become far easier to love and understand.

Ara: Which brings us onto the final part because I suspect the same is true in relationships with others. When parts of us – and their feelings – are hidden and murky, others may well respond to us with aversion, or by trying to grasp onto the more appealing defensive versions of us. When it’s all available – and clear – to ourselves and others, we stand a better chance of having mutually nourishing, open, relationships.

James: Right. But so hard for the parts of us who have survived for years by employing those defences to believe that.

Bringing all our parts into relationships

Ara: So let’s explore this. How is it useful to bring the ‘insecure’ parts into relationship with others? I can imagine people thinking that doesn’t make much sense. Surely the last thing we want to do is to relate with others in an insecure way?

James: Mm well part of it is that Pete Walker bit we find so useful: reparenting ourselves and reparenting by committee. We can’t do all this work alone because humans are relational, interconnected and interdependent. There’s only so far we can get as an individual (albeit an individual who is also seven people!)

Ara: There’s only so far our inner relationships can take us.

James: Right. I’m thinking that therapy is like an in-between between the inner work and the work of relating to the people in our life. We can gradually bring our ‘insecure’ parts into the therapeutic relationship in order to notice how they relate with another person, and to experience a different response to the damaging ones they’ve received in the past.

Ara: It often feels like that doesn’t it? That me, you or Fox is taking Morgan, Jonathan or Tony to therapy to give them an hour of practicing doing this with another person.

James: Right, they practise with us at home, and with our therapist in that room. Doing similar things. Like the therapist will point out their defences and encourage them to drop into their body, communicate how they’re feeling, etc. They can practise revealing the things that they assume other people will reject in them – because that’s what’s happened in the past – and experience somebody just being okay with them.

Ara: Maybe a couple of examples?

James: Well like whenever Morgan allows herself to talk about what she’d really like to say to somebody who has treated us badly, our therapist clearly enjoys her energy and her capacity to see through people’s bullshit and protect us. And Tony is gradually feeling safe enough that if he shows up in therapy with the energy that he’s scared will be ‘too much’ for people, she’ll help him to stay grounded. She’ll be up for seeing the vulnerability he’s covering over, while encouraging him to go slowly instead of revealing ‘too far too fast’ as he has in the past.

Ara: And you’re thinking that this kind of therapy is a bridge to bringing those parts into more open relation with others?

James: I think that’s where discernment comes in perhaps. Who is it safe enough to openly engage with from those parts? Who might we be able to speak about these parts with, without actually bringing them out? What situations might we want to be cautious around, perhaps only bringing you or me to Ara, at least while this is all so new?

Ara: I’m thinking that maps nicely onto what Tony and I wrote about Dunbar’s number too. Discerning where a relationship is at, in our life, and what that means in terms of how open and vulnerable we’re able to be in it.

James: Heh our computer just told us it was ‘establishing secure connection’. I thought, ‘you and me both mate’!

Ara: *laughs*

James: What were we saying? Oh yeah. So we’re finding it hugely useful to recognise that Morgan, Tony, and Jonathan are already engaged in all our relationships – of course. And now we continually check in where they’re at with them. There’s a sense that, instead of denying that we feel any anger, yearning, or fear towards the people in our life, perhaps it’s more useful to assume that we will feel all of those things – to some extent – in all our relationships, and to name that – to ourselves, and even with that person.

Ara: Absolutely. There’s this paradoxical sense that the more we can allow all of that, the better we’ll be able  to love that person.

James: The more we know how we hate them, fear them, and want something from them, the better the relationship will be! It is surprising indeed, but it’s true. We’ve navigated recent potentially tricky moments in relationships much better, I think, being able to name to ourselves what those attachments – or potential attachments – are with that person.

Ara: Again an example?

James: Well with one friend we noticed how Tony wanted to fling himself into closer relationship with them, while Morgan had flickers of anger that perhaps they weren’t being mindful enough of how vulnerable we are. With another we noticed Tony wishing for more time with them, and Morgan wanting to dismiss them for not making more time for us. 

Those two things happened with friends who we talk about this stuff with all the time so we could name it, and they could reciprocate naming the multiple different parts of them in play. It makes it much easier to be able to say ‘this part of me feels…’ because there’s no blame in it. Not ‘you’re treating us badly’ but ‘I notice that part of me longs for more time with you and another part of me wants to distance from you because we’re not getting it. Can we talk about how we might do time together in future so those parts can have a bit more clarity about where we’re at?’ 

Ara: Mm that’s a good example because it turned out that it wasn’t that we really wanted lots more from them, or to reject them, we just wanted to understand where they were at more clearly, and what we could expect from them.

James: Discernment is important in knowing who will be up for those kinds of conversations and who won’t. Sometimes it’s more of an implicit sense – once we’ve named it all to ourselves – that we need to pull back a bit from this person, or to have a different kind of conversation, perhaps just from one of us Ara.

Ara: Yes, in the deepest relationships we might encourage Tony, Jonathan or Morgan to have the conversation directly, in order to experience that part of us being met well. In less close ones we could report on where our parts are at. In even less close relationships – like a professional exchange – we would talk from one of us as if we were a unified ‘I’, once we’d come up with our boundary, or request, or whatever it was. It feels important to have at least some relationships where all parts of us are welcome, just as we welcome them within ourselves.

James: I think we’re nearly there with this piece Ara.

Ara: One more breath to feel whether there’s anything more to add?

James: *breathes* Okay yes I want to say that it’s important to give these processes a lot of time. That’s why slow, spacious relationships are so essential for us at the moment. Often we need time to notice that an exchange with somebody has brought some of those ‘insecure’ feelings up in us, to find the part – or multiple parts – in us who are triggered, to fully drop into what they are feeling, and then to consider together what kind of response, if any, is necessary. We tend to keep ongoing notes on our phone about each of the current situations in play, and keep returning to them over days, or even weeks, until we have a clear sense of the appropriate response.

Ara: Mm right, and not jumping too quickly to that last stage is so important. As we’ve said, it might be that the feeling just needs to be held and heard inwardly, or that some kind of communication or clarification is important, or that we need the relationship to shift in some way. We often can’t tell which it is till we’ve had time to go through the whole process. And the more we do this – giving it time, and asking that other people give us time – the more those parts of us relax into the process instead of freaking out and trying to solve it immediately.

James: Criticism and conflict are a particular challenge of course. Morgan, Jonathan, and Tony would reactively go into a blame, shame, or tame response – respectively.

Ara: I like that. Blame the other, collapse in shame, or tame the situation by glossing over it or making it okay for the other person without attending to our needs. But taking time, as a team, helps us find more of an ‘I’m okay, you’re okay’ response, where we value ourselves and the others involved equally.

James: This whole thing also helps us to see much more clearly when we’re on the receiving end of other peoples’ reactivity: when they are foregrounding their equivalent of Morgan, Tony, or Jonathan – or their Max cover up. We’re not there yet of course, but there’s a strong sense of building compassion for others – even when they do react against us – because we’re so familiar with those parts of ourselves, and we know the incredibly tough feelings – and the painful experiences – that they come from. On the way to that compassion, though, we need to fully feel our attractions and aversions to those things in other people.

Ara: The sense I’m left with is that ‘earned secure attachment’ requires us to hold – and even share – all of our ‘insecure attachments’. Without that it would just be ‘faux secure attachment’ again.

James: Which meshes nicely with Bonnie Badenoch’s ‘radical inclusivity’, Janina Fisher’s ‘no part gets left behind’ and Richard Schwartz’s ‘no bad parts’. The answer is never to try to eradicate any part, or the less palatable elements of any part. The answer is to welcome them all fully, reach an inner secure attachment with them, and bring them all to all of our experiences in a safe-enough, secure-enough way.

Ara: Nicely put James.

James: Thank-you. And thank-you for doing this Ara. I’ve loved it, and your reminders to pause have definitely helped me both to enjoy the process throughout, and to not stray into the unwieldy lengths of some of our blog posts.

Ara: Mm there’s definitely more to be said about applying this same approach to our relationship with work James, but not for now. Let’s keep it a succinct little piece (for us!) at under 7000 words. Time for a walk *smiles*

More on this:

For more exploration of these themes check out our recent pieces on attachment, slow relating, and big feels and the other work on trauma and plurality on this website.

Patreon link: If you enjoyed this please feel free to support my free writing on Patreon.

Plural tag: This post was by James and Ara.

Meg-John (MJ) Barker (they/them) is a writer, zine-maker, collaborator, contemplative practitioner, and friend. They are the author of a number of zines and popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including graphic guides to Queer, Gender, and Sexuality (with Jules Scheele), and How To Understand Your Gender, Sexuality and Relationships (with Alex Iantaffi).